Spotting future talent

I used to keep a record of how many people I had met as a recruiter but, as the numbers tipped into the thousands, I moved on to yet another new notebook and lost count.

Needless to say, it has been my privilege to meet many tens of truly visionary corporate affairs practitioners.  While I would never be so arrogant as to claim I could spot those destined for greatness, there a few who really stand out.  Not because they were especially clever in what they said, because they had worked for ‘the right companies’ or because they wore particularly snappy cuff-links.  It was something else.

At Birchwood Knight, we work hard to spot future talent as early as possible.  In fact, some of those that came to us when the company started in 2009, looking for individual contributor roles for their second or third jobs, are now ‘Heads of’ in their own right.

But what characteristics do the truly exceptional (the ‘few’ I mention above) share?  What’s their recipe for future success?  I can’t be sure, and I don’t want to even try and be scientific, but this is my thinking:

  • Quiet humility.  It often seems that we live in a world owned by extroverts – people who do their thinking out loud, who speak long and often.  Yet, for me, the candidates who listened, who chose their words carefully and who recognised that they didn’t necessarily have all the answers – they impressed.  These are the people who I would love to work for.  Why?  Because there would be space for their team’s ideas and acknowledgement that a leader, no matter how brilliant, can be only be brilliant-er still if they have the humility to recognise that no boss succeeds on their own.

  • Clear purpose.  And I don’t mean to make money!  I always ask people what they want to do.  Where do they want to be in five years?  Where do they want to be in ten?  Occasionally, increasingly occasionally, I get the ‘I want to be in charge’ response.  You know the type.  Wants to be at the top.  Own railroad, own rules.   To me, that’s just like wanting a big car.  It’s a disposable, mutable desire.  In contrast, and from very early in their careers, the top percentile candidates can define how they will make a difference and what unique qualities they hope to bring to the career they’ve chosen.

  • Left field thinking.  Does what it says on the tin.  Yes, people need to conform to a certain degree but – clichéd it may be – as the world continues to take some interesting twists and turns, people need to think outside the box.  Conventional thinkers? These candidates are no longer a great fit for even the most junior of corporate affairs roles.  The best candidates are those that have burned the rulebook, or at least the very dullest of its pages, and are willing to implement new technologies and thinking.

I can’t name names but, being deliberately abstruse, there a couple that leap to mind as examples of the above.  One example: from graduate to heading global comms for a major tech unicorn in 14 years.  Another: from junior role in publishing to a senior comms role in a major energy provider in a decade.

So, the recipe?  Humility.  Purpose.  Non-conventional thinking.  Oh, and mix liberally with common-sense as the essential binding agent!

Wayne Reynolds, founder and Managing Director, Birchwood Knight

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6th November 2019

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